US Fight Against Islamic State: Long Haul Ahead

by Wayne White

As 2014 draws to a close, there is no shortage of alternative suggestions about how to defeat the Islamic State (ISIS or IS). Most of them involve US escalation, driven by exaggerated notions of IS capabilities. Retaking IS’s extensive holdings will, however, take some time. All do acknowledge that regional coalition members are not pulling their weight.

Dismayed by the early December debate in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, in which many Senators sought to limit President Barack Obama’s military options, Senator Marco Rubio said Dec. 12 that it was “alarming” that IS “now reaches from North Africa…the Middle East, Pakistan, South Asia, and Southeast Asia.” Dismissing administration efforts as “half-measures,” Rubio also demanded that defeating IS include ousting Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad from power.

Retired Marine Corps Colonel Gary Anderson of George Washington University argued Dec. 22 that a mainly American “large scale punitive expedition” should swiftly crush the Islamic State. Georgetown University’s Anthony Cordesman pointed out, however, that US “airpower cannot resolve the religious, ethnic, political, and governance issues…at the core of Iraqi and Syrian…conflict.” Although Anderson believes a huge foreign ground offensive would clear the way for follow-on solutions, Cordesman, while critical of the inadequacies of the air campaign, warned against major escalation and said realistic endgames could be elusive.

Senator John McCain visited Iraq Dec. 26 and said the training of some 4,000 anti-IS Sunni Arab tribesmen allied to the Iraqi government should take no more than 6 weeks to 2 months and that retaking the IS-held northern Iraqi city of Mosul should be the first Iraqi goal in driving IS from Iraq. He praised Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi for “success in unifying the Iraqi factions.”

There also has been a burst of December peace and ceasefire proposals or feelers put forward by the UN, Russia, and some individual countries. Unfortunately, the motives behind Moscow’s initiative are highly suspect, and none would appeal to all combatants or be properly monitored.

Mission Creep à la Obama

Unfortunately, the Obama administration, whether spooked by hawkish critics or pressured by the US military brass, has steadily ramped up US military involvement. The Pentagon is seeking a contractor to deploy jet fuel and gasoline to the al-Asad Airbase in western Iraq (far behind IS lines) by mid-January. One thousand troops from the US 101st Airborne Division also are scheduled to deploy to Iraq in January to train, advise and assist Iraqi and Kurdish forces.

If US aircraft begin using al-Asad, aircraft and US personnel would become a prime IS objective. When the US based aircraft inside South Vietnam, the need to deploy sizeable American ground forces to protect them was quickly generated. Furthermore, nearly 200 US troops sent to al-Asad in November may have fought IS forces in that area earlier this month; if this proves true, it would be the first such encounter between supposedly non-combat US troops sent to Iraq and IS forces.

The State of the Islamic State

Despite the jitters many have concerning the sweep of Islamic State forces, the view from the IS capital of Raqqa is hardly rosy. Still stalled in front of embattled Kobani, IS could not stop a sweeping Iraqi Kurdish, Yazidi, and Iraqi Army drive across northern Iraq to take Sinjar Mountain (again rescuing Yazidi refugees) and wrest from IS much of the town of Sinjar by December 21. Back in mid-December, the Pentagon also confirmed that an air strike killed Haji Mutazz, a deputy to IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, as well as the IS military operations chief for Iraq, and the IS “governor” of Mosul. Meanwhile, daily coalition air strikes grind away at various targets within IS’s “caliphate” (now increasingly wracked by shortages).

Senator Rubio’s notion of IS extending from North Africa to Southeast Asia is an exaggeration. It merely refers to a scattering of mostly small groups here and there—already extremists—simply declaring allegiance to or praise for IS.

The situation of IS forces beyond Kobani in Syria is meanwhile somewhat muddled. In the northwest Aleppo area, largely Islamic extremist elements like IS and the al-Qaeda affiliated al-Nusra Front (plus a few mainstream groups) formed a “Shamiyya Front” alliance Dec. 25 to resist recent advances by Syrian government forces. In the south, seventeen mainly non-extremist rebel groups united in early December. Making slow gains against regime forces near Damascus, this grouping has received some moderate Arab aid. Rumors of a grand alliance between IS and al-Nusra, which still fight here and there, were premature.

The desire of some US politicians (and Turkey) for the US-led coalition to also take on the Assad regime is very risky. The fall of or severe weakening of the regime in the near-term would create a vacuum in western Syria and IS and Nusra would be best positioned to fill it. Both groups already encroach on the holdings of moderate rebels there. To block extremist exploitation of regime implosion, a large force of effective combat troops would have to be committed. No coalition member seems ready to do so. Finally, crafting endgames for Syria—now a chaotic, shattered land flush with raging ethno-sectarian hatreds—is an incredibly daunting task.

Iraqi Government Challenges

Despite Senator McCain’s claims, Abadi has not “unified Iraqi factions.” McCain probably got the “canned” tour limited to government successes. On Dec. 18, Abadi did expand press freedom, dropping predecessor Nouri al-Maliki’s official lawsuits against journalists and publications. Yet little else, particularly relating to the military front, is going well.

Only a relatively limited number of Sunni Arab tribes and former “Awakening” cadres continue to fight alongside the government. Worse still,  the Iraqi Army has not even rebounded enough to replace Shi’a militias fighting on the front lines against IS in many areas where they devastate recaptured Sunni Arab towns. And Abadi has offered no sweeping initiative to guarantee Sunni Arab inclusion and rights. Meanwhile, IS has been busily weakening Sunni Arab tribal structure by playing on intra-tribal clan rivalries to make major tribal desertions to Baghdad more difficult.

Moreover, four thousand pro-government Sunni tribesmen is a paltry number stacked against many tens of thousands currently in IS’s pocket or under its sway. Opening an offensive against IS in Iraq by assaulting the vast Mosul area would also likely further grind up and demoralize recently trained Iraqi and other forces than empower them or result in victory. Finally, Baghdad is still preoccupied with simply trying to hold onto several key pieces of real estate behind IS lines, repeatedly under attack and poorly supplied.

Abadi appealed to his Turkish counterpart Ahmet Davutoglu for greater support in battling IS. Davutoglu declared, “We are open to any idea,” but specifically noted only continuing to train Iraqi Kurds. Aside from intelligence cooperation and training, Ankara may well avoid most meaningful commitments to Baghdad, just as it has rebuffed other coalition members—including its NATO allies.

Long War

Short of a severe weakening of IS from the inside, the struggle against the group probably will be prolonged. The problem is not merely the limited Western forces willing to participate, but paltry support from the nearest coalition members.

Turkey, sharing a vast border with IS, is the worst offender. Nonetheless, the extreme reluctance of a nervous Jordan and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states to become heavily involved is also a major drawback. Unless these reluctant allies enter the fray more forcefully on the military and economic fronts, and Baghdad grasps the need for a genuinely diverse future for Iraq, the fight is likely to be a hard slog. And the more the US does militarily further reduces the incentive for regional players to do their part.

Photo: President Barack Obama, with Vice President Joe Biden, convenes a meeting regarding Iraq in the Situation Room of the White House, June 12, 2014. Credit: Official White House Photo by Pete Souza

Wayne White

Wayne White is a former Deputy Director of the State Department's Middle East/South Asia Intelligence Office (INR/NESA). Earlier in the Foreign Service and later in the INR he served in Niger, Israel, Egypt, the Sinai and Iraq as an intelligence briefer to senior officials of many Middle East countries and as the State Department's representative to NATO Middle East Working Groups in Brussels. Now a Scholar with the Middle East Institute, Mr. White has written numerous articles, been cited in scores of publications, and made numerous TV and radio appearances.



  1. The solution is obvious: If the US stops erring with the ridiculous idea of training Syrian rebels and instead support militarily and logistically the highly trained and experienced Syrian army then ISIS will be dismantled in a jiffy and a non-Islamists majority will rule Syria. The Syrian army joining the Iraqi army can also eradicate ISIS in Iraq.
    But how can the USA ever accept that it was wrong all the way about Syria? How can it accept that the Syrian army becomes strong and later threatens the US ‘weak’ ally in the region, Israel? How can it justify that move to its other ‘weak’ allies in the region, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf country who have a personal account to settle with Bashar al Assad.
    Isn’t the honor of the USA and Saudi Arabia worth more than hundred of thousands of death?

  2. “IS “now reaches from North Africa…the Middle East, Pakistan, …”
    It’s no coincidence that these are the same countries (MENA) forced into instability by the US, so the obvious choice (which Washington still won’t do) is to stay out.

    “Thousands of lives, trillions of dollars, 13 years, and a loss of America’s reputation and prestige in the world. All that brought about nothing positive whatsoever. Not only have the Taliban and Al-Qaeda not been destroyed, the global threat of conflict is even more vehement today. Many experts fear the long-range effects of America’s wars will be perpetual attacks of retribution. We are witnessing, even now, the beginnings of this.”
    –Philip Butler, December 28, 2014

  3. Maybe we can send the U.S.Congress who put Israel first, such as Graham said to Netanyahoo the other day, along with every Neocon, Military General and their staff, to the front. Let’s not forget AIPAC and the lessors and their lobbyists too.

  4. Current policy is succeeding. ISIS is certainly being contained and even rolled back in some areas. No American lives are being lost and plenty of jihadis are being wiped out. True, ISIS are able to recruit widely from around the world, but that means many countries are shedding extremist elements, who would otherwise be a danger to the local population.

    Of course, it would have been better never to have intervened in Iraq, Syria, Libya etc., but given the mess already made, it seems like current policy is the most sensible way forward.

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